It’ll be some time yet before we know precisely which details will stick with us from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, long after they’ve receded from the rearview. Already, though, a few common touchstones seem to be emerging in our films and shows about it: the stockpiling of toilet paper, the emptiness of grocery shelves, the clapping for carers, and, of course, the claustrophobia of being stuck inside for months on end.
For the unnamed couple (James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan) at the center of Stephen Daldry’s Together, that misery is compounded by the fact that they absolutely cannot stand each other. They’re staying together for their young son (Samuel Logan), they claim, but they seem bonded on an even deeper level by the delight they take in their mutual loathing. In just the first scene, he breaks down exactly why he hates her face, while she compares him to both colorectal cancer and “a pint glass of diarrhea.” Tough luck for them, then, that the film charts their relationship over a year’s worth of pandemic lockdowns in the U.K. As adept as Together is at capturing the challenges of the pandemic — the uncertainty, the anger, the bone-deep exhaustion — it’s rather less convincing as a love story.
Better as a pandemic story than a love story.
It’s not fault of the actors. Although the verbose speeches (written by Dennis Kelly) and contained setting (most scenes take place in the family’s kitchen) give Together the feel of a stage play, McAvoy and Horgan ground their performances in enough nuance and spontaneity to transcend the grating theatricality that has plagued other shot-during-COVID projects like Locked Down and Coastal Elites. Daldry’s direction and Kelly’s script allow plenty of room for complicated or unresolved feelings, and in moments when the couple pause to take stock of the trauma they’ve endured — as when she stands shellshocked over news about her ailing mother while he watches helplessly from a distance, unable to offer even the paltry comfort of a hug — Together can be downright bruising.
Too often, though, it’s a film that’s hard to watch not because it’s so raw or so real, but because its characters are so, well, annoying. She’s a self-righteous liberal who spends more time needling him about his politics than trying to live up to her own; he’s a smug conservative who touts his E-Class Benz as proof he’s better than the harried workers at the grocery store. (Both do eventually come around to directing their vast reserves of bitterness against the British government for its failures during the pandemic.) Neither seems especially pleasant to spend time with alone, and together they relish in airing their complaints or analyzing their sex life for a captive audience — in this case, us, the viewers. Together doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as yank us in through it, shove a cup of tea in our hands, and then demand that we nod and smile while its central duo yammer at us for an hour and a half.
The couple treat us, variously, as confidants, referees, marriage counselors and — in one especially earnest but puzzling scene — People Who Still Don’t Get Just How Serious This Pandemic Is. They vie for our attention and our sympathy, playing up their discord like they’re putting on some pandemic-themed version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? At least Nick and Honey know how they got to George and Martha’s, and at least they’re allowed to talk back. I spent too much of Together wondering what I had done to deserve this treatment, and looking for an exit sign that might direct me safely back to the other side of that fourth wall.
The structure does allow for remarkable intimacy, in that we become privy to the kinds of ugly or vulnerable thoughts that most people bury in public under a veneer of respectability; an anecdote that the couple cutely refer to as “the mushroom story,” for example, is probably best saved for a therapist’s office. And McAvoy and Horgan are well matched as scene partners, reacting to each other with the curiosity and familiarity of people who’ve spent so long scrutinizing each other that they’ve become inextricably intertwined in spite of themselves.
As the year wears on, both halves of the couple begin to sag under the weight of the accumulated trauma, and the brittleness of their early bickering gives way to something both tougher and softer. Both actors play the transformation with grace, and it’s almost possible to believe they really could reach “a love that exists beyond hate,” as Kelly’s script puts it.
But there’s a reason McAvoy and Horgan’s romantic chemistry lights up the screen only when they’re making out: It’s the only time their characters manage to stop talking long enough to make us forget how exhausting they are.
Together has salient points to make about how the pandemic has changed the way we see not just ourselves or each other, but the whole world around us, and it ends on the relatable fear that we’ll come out the other end to discover that too few of those changes have truly stuck. The messengers it sends to deliver these ideas, however, are the sort of couple who suck the air out of every party they’ve ever been invited to by turning the entire evening into a referendum on their personal drama. One of the rare silver linings of the pandemic has been how much easier it is to avoid such people. Why rush to invite them back in with Together?